In today’s Book Keeping, we set sail with novelist Naomi J. Williams, who turns out to be as voracious a reader as she is a talented writer. Naomi’s debut, Landfalls, is a beautifully written and absorbing tale of the high seas, scientific exploration, human tragedy, and the world on the cusp of the modern era.
Is there a book you’ve tried to finish but couldn’t?
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I’ve failed several attempts to read Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. The prose is dazzling, but I end up feeling like I can’t breathe. I can only do a paragraph or two at a time before I have to come up for air, and that’s no way to read a book. I found very moving and compelling the long excerpt in the New Yorker from Joseph Anton, however, and think I would probably love that book—to the extent that one can “love” an account of someone’s really distressing real-life experiences.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
Alice McDermott’s Someone. She has this miraculous way of getting right to the heart-breaking poignancy of the human experience, even the most ordinary person’s ordinary tragedies. She does this in part with unexpected jumps in time. There’s the paragraph where Marie reflects, on the morning after her wedding, that “For one of us at least, we knew, we were certain—this is how we saw the world—there would never again be loneliness in life.” But then she adds, “For Tom, as it turned out.” That simple line, For Tom, as it turned out, propelling you forward years into the future, into the loneliness of her widowhood—and so many lines like it throughout the novel—just brought me to my knees.
If possible, can you send a photo of your bookshelf? Which of these books are most meaningful to you?
This is my “books about cartography” shelf. I love old maps and the stories behind them; it was an old map that inspired Landfalls, a story I recently shared at my blog. Books about maps are much easier to come by than actual maps, of course. A few of these—like the Yale Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation—I bought as curiosities. This is a fancy scholarly tome published in 1965 to publicize the “discovery” of the oldest known map to show America—a discovery that’s been largely discredited since and is now believed by most to be a forgery. The book is like a testament to the danger of making pronouncements with insufficient evidence.
Two of the books here are among my all-time favorites; I’ve read each several times. They’re John Noble Wilford’s The Mapmakers, an immensely readable history of cartography, and Dava Sobel’s Longitude, a page-turner about the clockmaker John Harrison, who “solved” the longitude problem with his chronometers. The explorers I write about in Landfalls directly benefited from his innovations. My illustrated edition of Longitude is a feast for the eyes and the mind.
And yes—that’s Frodo and Sam plying their boat toward Mordor, a souvenir from my obsession with the LOTR movies.
What’s your favorite indie bookstore? What’s the most recent book you’ve purchased?
There’s only one bookstore in my town (Davis, California) that sells new books. It’s called the Avid Reader, and they’re really supportive of literary events and authors in the area. My most recent purchases there were Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, which are on my bedside table waiting to be read. My most recent book purchases happened at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, where I went to see Aleksandar Hemon in conversation with Rabih Alameddine. I left with lovely signed copies of The Making of Zombie Wars, and An Unnecessary Woman. They’ve joined the stack on my bedside table.
What are you reading now?
I’m a pretty promiscuous reader. Usually I’m reading one work of fiction, one non-fiction book, one volume of poetry, and something research-related. So right now I’m making my way through Lydia Davis’s Varieties of Disturbance, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Carolyn Forché’s Blue Hour, and a new English-language translation of the Kojiki, the 8th-century chronicle of early Japan. That last one is part of a self-directed crash course on Japanese literature that I’ve embarked on for my next writing project.
What is the first book you ever remember reading (or having read to you)?
I grew up in a very religious family, so was raised on a steady diet of Bible stories. I don’t remember ever not knowing about the Garden of Eden, Noah and his ark, Jesus rising from the dead—all of that. I spent the first six years of my life in Japan, so these stories came to me first in Japanese and later in English. The other set of stories I remember my parents reading to me and my sister in Japanese was Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books. I was shocked to discover in 5th or 6th grade that they weren’t originally Japanese. They seemed so Japanese to me. I read them in English to my own children when they were young, and you know, they still seemed kind of Japanese.
Naomi J. Williams lives in Northern California with her family. Landfalls is her first novel.
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